Today we welcome Barbara Claypole White.
Book ‘Em: Tell us about you and your life outside of writing.
Barbara Claypole White: I’m a Brit based in North Carolina. Sadly, I don’t have much of a life outside of family and writing, but my hobby—much neglected—is woodland gardening. We’re out in the forest, and I have fourteen flower beds that I started from scratch. When you share your family with mental illness, as I do, you need to carve out time for your own mental well-being. Gardening is my therapy…except when I’m ranting about deer, voles, squirrels, or Japanese beetle.
Book ‘Em: Which books have you written? What are they about and why did you choose to write them? Do your books have a message? Are they fiction or nonfiction?
Barbara Claypole White: I write mainstream fiction, what I call hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. I have four novels out—THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, THE PERFECT SON, and ECHOES OF FAMILY. My fifth novel, THE PROMISE BETWEEN US, will enter the world on January 16th. Each novel reflects my passion for chipping away at the stereotypes of mental illness, and I have a favorite—recurring—image of light through the trees. That light represents hope in darkness.
My writing path evolved through my first hero, James Nealy, a brilliant entrepreneur who battles obsessive-compulsive disorder. James came from my darkest fear as a mother: What if, when my young son grew up, no one could see beyond his OCD to love him for the amazing person he is? I owe James everything. He’s still in my head, encouraging me to go deeper and darker with each tortured character.
Book ‘Em: Do you have a work in progress?
Barbara Claypole White: Yup. Can we move on now? I struggle to unearth and excavate my stories, and I travelled down many dead ends with another story before I found my new heroine, Maggie King. Maggie, the beloved social director of a memory care home, is on an impossible mission to earn her family’s forgiveness, despite being clean and sober for ten years. My working title is THE SHADOW OF THE DAY, and it’s about finding success in failure and learning to forgive yourself, even when others can’t. Touching on social anxiety, teen bullying, and the role of celebrity in our lives, it also includes a toxic mother. I’ve never written a villain before, but I was intrigued by a simple question: When do we stop using mental illness as a scapegoat? Anxiety or depression should never become excuses for mean or abusive behavior.
Book ‘Em: What was the most difficult section/piece you ever wrote? What made it difficult?
Barbara Claypole White: I can’t answer this question without giving multiple plot spoilers, so here’s a slightly different answer: the hardest character I’ve ever written is Marianne Stokes, the heroine of ECHOES OF FAMILY. She’s a record producer, wife, and mother who struggles with bipolar disorder. Through the novel she’s asymptomatic, in a mixed state, hypomanic, hypersexual, in full-blown mania, psychotic, heavily drugged in a five-star mental facility in England, depressed, and finally asymptomatic again. Phew. But underneath her illness, she’s still Marianne. The challenge was finding her voice and keeping it consistent. But hey, the good stuff always happens outside your comfort zone.
Book ‘Em: What sort of research do you do for your work?
Barbara Claypole White: I’m a research heavy novelist, and my favorite method of research is the one-on-one interview. I find people who are living the experiences I want to write about and ask them to tell me their stories. I take along a recorder, transcribe the interviews, and mine for gold. For example, when I was trying to understand Katie Mack’s life as a metal artist in THE PROMISE BETWEEN US, I interviewed a local artist multiple times. On the last trip to her studio, she insisted I learn how to weld. That was terrifying and empowering! I also read memoirs and non-fiction, and do online research that includes watching YouTube videos. For settings, I go out and about with a camera and a notepad.
Book ‘Em: Which books and author do you read for pleasure? Is there an author who inspires you?
Barbara Claypole White: I’ll read anything someone recommends to me, especially debuts. The one author who consistently inspires me is Jodi Picoult. I think she’s multiple layers of brilliant.
Book ‘Em: Was there a person who encouraged you to write?
Barbara Claypole White: Me. I’ve always written for me.
Book ‘Em: What would you say are your strengths as an author?
Barbara Claypole White: I’m more of a writer than a storyteller, and I love describing gardens and birds, which can slow down a novel. I guess my greatest strength is character voice. I spend a great deal of time reading my work aloud, by character, to find cadence and the unique expressions that reveal personality.
Book ‘Em: How often do you write, and do you write using a strict routine?
Barbara Claypole White: Every day. My prime writing time is from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and I try to keep the momentum going until noon. I get extremely grumpy if anyone interferes with that morning schedule, and I put off the job of being an author until the afternoon and evening. Last week, for example, I was back in England helping out with my 87-year-old mother, and I set my alarm for 6:00 a.m. and worked in bed for two hours every day before breakfast.
Book ‘Em: Five years from now, where do you see yourself as a writer?
Barbara Claypole White: My poet/musician son and I have talked about a joint nonfiction project (our ongoing journey through OCD) but I can’t imagine not writing fiction. I keep saying I’ll go lighter, but I never do. I’m drawn to the Dark Side, and I want to continue to be part of the public conversation on how we view mental illness. I guess that means I’ll keep on truckin’ with more of the same.
Book ‘Em: If you could offer one piece of advice to a novice writer, what would it be?
Barbara Claypole White: Let writing be the cure. Write through bad writing days, rejection, negative reviews, doubt, and family crises. Keep writing, no matter what.
Book ‘Em: What would you consider the best compliment a reader could give your book?
Barbara Claypole White: The best readers’ letters I receive include the words: “Your story made me feel less alone.” Not everyone has a support system, and many people struggle with mental illness in isolation and shame. That breaks my heart.
Book ‘Em: Provide an excerpt of your writing that you would like to share with our members.
Barbara Claypole White: The opening lines from the prologue of THE PROMISE BETWEEN US:
Crouched in the corner of my baby girl’s bedroom, we both shake: the three-legged mutt and the mother with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain. Hardly a five-star protection squad, but we would die to keep Maisie safe.
Ringo nudges my arm and wriggles closer. His circle of trust is small, namely me, but then I rescued him after he collapsed in our driveway, deprived of food and love. Neither of us has eaten. I can’t, and Ringo won’t leave my side. Not tonight.
Across the room, the blinds are open. The sky is cast-iron black, no stars. In the red metal crib with polka-dot bedding, under the soft light of her Winnie-the-Pooh lamp, ’Mazing Maisie makes suckling noises. I don’t have to see her to know she’s sleeping with arms flung above her head, mouth blowing pretend kisses.
What goes through her mind at seven months? I know it’s more than instinct. I know the smile that greets her daddy or her aunt—even her godfather the one time he deigned to visit—is pure joy. You can’t fake joy. Is she dreaming under the gaze of the cow jumping over the moon? I was six months pregnant and screeching along to Bruce Springsteen when I painted that mural. Although, let’s be honest, I traced the outline. Cheated, the way I’m cheating at motherhood.